Continuous improvement is a feature of most current quality systems. The idea being that humans learn from doing – learn from their mistakes and from their successes. Since the work under quality control is being performed by humans, the processes, procedures, and methods used to perform the work ought to benefit from the same learning process. Although humans do learn from doing that learning is usually proportional to the need for improvement. Learning to use oven mitts on pots and pans being moved on the stove was borne of the need to avoid the painful burns incurred when the cook tried to move a hot pot with her bare hands. When we’re rewarded for our mistakes we tend not to learn quickly. Let me give you an example of what I mean by rewarding mistakes. In a manufacturing environment production benchmarks may be set using a weak process or procedure and the worker is paid to meet those benchmarks. The processes and procedures tend not to be improved in that case because there is no pain involved in using the weak processes and procedures and no incentive to improve on them.
The lessons we learn from our work, including those learned from the work of a project have to be formally identified, acknowledged, analyzed, and improvements identified before we can improve our performance. This is especially true in the world of projects because the team moves on after project completion. The lessons may be painful and the compulsion to learn may be strong at the time but without a formal means of organizing the learning, the improvements that come about because of the ability of the team members to learn from their mistakes (or the mistakes of others) is lost. Lessons Learned sessions are designed to organize the learning that occurs naturally, capture the lesson, analyze it, and convert it into a plan for improvement. Lessons Learned go one step further than that. They recognize things that went well and organize them in the same fashion so that they become repeatable.